It has been two years, seven months, and 27 days since Kanye West last gave us a peek into his mind with his last album, Yeezus. However, a lot has changed for Mr. West in those 971 days. Mr. West is a family man now, with two kids and a wife. He also has a drive that we haven’t seen the likes of since he was “making five beats a day for three summers,” endeavoring to make a name for himself as a rapper over 10 years ago. Gone are the days of “I Am a God." Rather, with the release of his seventh solo effort The Life of Pablo, West presents himself as a humbled genius from the Southside of Chicago. Granted, genius is hardly a humble way to present oneself, but when compared to the harsh megalomania of Yeezus as well as the gilded luxury of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, TLOP feels remarkably accessible.
Billed by West himself as a modern “gospel album,” TLOP is dripping with soulful hooks and soaring choir homages to the traditional African American church hymns of his youth. The album starts at breakneck speed with “Ultralight Beam,” a personal soliloquy on the rapper’s faith in God. Enlisting the help of The-Dream, Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, famed gospel singer Kirk Franklin, and a 32 piece choir, West starts his album with a prayer: “This is a God dream/ This is everything,” he repeats continuously, his voice saturated with auto-tune. He sounds almost in disbelief of how far he has come to get to this point in his career and in his life. Now, instead of begging for validation, boisterously trying to break into the insular world of rap (as he did over 10 years ago with College Dropout), West has the ability to give another Chicago Southsider the same opportunity Jay-Z gave him so many years ago. Chance the Rapper shines incredibly bright on “Ultralight Beam,” relishing his moment of validation: “this is my part, nobody else speak/this is my part, nobody else speak." If you met the person who inspired your dream, and you then got to live it out with them, I bet you’d relish the moment too. “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” Chance raps, poignantly illustrating how far West has come from rapping about girls not believing that he knew Talib-Kweli.
So who is Pablo anyway? While it could be any one of many Pablos, from Noriega to Escobar to Zabaleta, (or none of them…) all signs indicate West is referring to Pablo Picasso with his album title. In a lecture last year at Oxford University, Kanye discussed his time in art school, saying: “my goal if I was gonna do art, fine art, would’ve been to have become Picasso, or greater….that always sounds so funny to people, the idea [of] comparing yourself to someone in the past that has done so much that in your life, you’re not allowed to even think you can do as much. That’s the mentality that suppresses humanity.” It’s not The Life of Kanye, it’s The Life of Pablo. With it, West attempts to remove his ego to convince you, as Picasso convinced him, that you can do at least as much as whoever it is that inspires you. But does he succeed in his effort?
Through the first couple of listens, the album sounds disjointed. Massive gospel choirs are contrasted with simplistic drum machine patterns that bring us back to 808’s & Heartbreak. This is then drizzled with a thick layer of syrupy voices and synths popularized by trap artists like Future and Young Thug (both featured). At times, these sounds work together to make TLOP feel somewhat muddled.
Yet, the more time I spent with TLOP, the more I began to feel it coming together as a cohesive work. As the album begins with “Ultralight Beam,” West pushes the intensity, but not before the leisurely, Kid Cudi assisted, "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" has given the audience a chance to center themselves. As "Pt. 2" begins, a white-hot sample of “Panda” by newest G.O.O.D. Music signee Desiigner cuts through the auto tune—it’s refreshing to see that Kanye still finds value in solid club bangers. The next track is “Famous,” and as Rihanna’s crooning vocals fill the otherwise sparse intro, the momentum built by the last three songs subsides, even as Kanye gets irreverent as ever, proclaiming “Me and Taylor (Swift) might still have sex/ I made that b*tch famous.”
Surprisingly, it is the one and only Miss Nina Simone (also sampled in “Blood on the Leaves”) who begins to make the album feel cohesive. It’s a short, naked sample of “Do What You Gotta Do,” and it contrasts incredibly with the hook-heavy, high-tempo hits “Feedback” and “Highlights." The latter is home to the hardest Kanye verse since “POWER” and my personal favorite line, “I need every bad b*tch up in Equinox, I need to know right now if you a freak or not,” which will certainly become a Plex anthem, along with the aggressively irreverent “Freestyle 4.”
Over the past few weeks, Kanye West has been called everything from a misogynist to an egotistical psychopath. People have been attacking West for the slut-shaming tweets he published in response to a feud with Wiz Khalifa and former flame Amber Rose. These were only in addition to the expected “Kanye acting a fool,” and his infamous incidents such as his “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!” tweet.
People tend to take issue with many things West says, but not often with what he means. For example, following the backlash of the aforementioned Taylor Swift line in “Famous,” Kanye attempted to explain what he meant, tweeting that “B*tch is an endearing term in hip hop like n***er.” This does seem to make sense considering that he has referred to the mother of his children using this same word multiple times in the past, as well. Furthermore, on “That’s My B*tch,” from Watch The Throne, Jay-Z uses this word to proudly assert that Beyonce belongs in the MoMA. However, this doesn’t mean that Kanye isn't offensive or misogynistic—I just wonder how much West actually cares if people think this way of him. Clearly, at least one woman would disagree with such assessments.
Throughout his career, West has strained against his celebrity and staunchly defended his right to be wrong. When Zane Lowe asked if he was a hypocrite in an interview last year, West replied, “Yes. I am. 100%.” He continued, “I’m a human being. I’m super hypocritical. I can feel something one time and completely a different way another time, I do it in the design office, I do it in the studio.” This idea is central to TLOP. It is apparent that Kanye West desperately wants the luxuries afforded to those of us ordinary folk, like the right to be wrong and the undervalued anonymity. But, due to West’s insatiable hunger for world domination, he forfeited those luxuries long ago. Today, things are unavoidably taken at face value, out of context, and are often misinterpreted—West should know that better than anyone.
His mother once said that he “displayed his charisma, even in daycare,” and by charisma she probably means everything we have all come to hate, and love about Kanye West. Kanye will always be Kanye, then, now, and forever. So, if you were expecting TLOP to be your coming to Yeezus moment, you’re going to come away disappointed. Kanye doesn’t really need to expand his fanbase. That being said, West has created an album that may be our most unfiltered look yet into the mind of this insecure genius, a mind engulfed by darkness, anger, and lust, but at the core just wants to help make the world a better place.
With each track, the rest of the album slides smoothly by, including the radio friendly “Waves,” the long-awaited, Frank Ocean-assisted “Wolves,” and an overhauled version of Nike-diss-track “Facts.” All of these bring their own flavor and intimacy to the album as it winds down. Overall, TLOP is good. Not My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy good, but that’s not the point. With this album, West reveals himself more honestly and clearly than he ever has in the past. Kanye has learned from the overwhelming maximalism of MBDTF and the sparse aggressiveness of Yeezus. He is returning to the raw emotion of 808’s, and showing off collaborative skills that we haven’t seen since Late Registration. TLOP is a showcase of everything we love, and love to hate about Mr. West, and that’s just the way he wanted it.